Rafael Nadal won the 19th Grand Slam of his career, prevailing in five-sets with a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 win over a defiant Russian Daniil Medvedev after just shy of five hours on Arthur Ashe. The 23-year-old worked tirelessly in his Grand Slam Final debut, registering winners aplenty to get back into title contention from two sets down. Ultimately though, earlier errors proved costly.
This year has been the best of Medvedev’s career. If not for the relentless brilliance of Rafael Nadal, the plucky young Russian would have mirrored Bianca Andreescu’s result 24 hours prior, stunning a heavy favourite to win his first major. That’s not to say he didn’t impress either. At times he delivered some excellent tennis, with blistering winners and devilish drop shots to boot.
Other stages though, his shot choices were baffling, mistimed and allowed Nadal an opportunity to quickly assert a foothold. As if playing Rafa infront of a partisan crowd in your first Grand Slam final wasn’t hard enough already. He was pipped to a first-set lead (7-5) by the experienced Spaniard, but match stats spoke volumes. Despite six further winners, he had double Nadal’s unforced errors – and won just 61% of his first serve points. Rafa in contrast, recorded 80%.
Early in the second set, Daniil had to save four break points just to level the scoring at 2-2. Yes, you read that right. Questions over fatigue and his gameplan emerged, as he lost three successive games to essentially gift Nadal the second set too. Amazon Prime commentators purred over the 33-year-old’s excellence but was his opponent starting to waver?
Well, the third set was as defiant an answer to that question. He utilised the serve-and-volley tactic to devastating effect. Rafa didn’t know what hit him. Despite being pushed left and right, back-and-forth with increasing regularity, the Russian relished the challenge. It energised him.
Moving well and reacting in plenty of time to scope out Nadal’s next move, it certainly did the trick. 18 winners, eight unforced errors later and Medvedev had etched his name in a piece of history: joining Austria’s Dominic Thiem as the only other player born after 1990 to win a set of Grand Slam Final tennis.
Daniil makes history to spur unlikely comeback
In its entirety, that statistic is damning but as a representative of the NextGen, Medvedev’s showing on the grandest stage with millions watching across the world? Awe-inspiring. You can only imagine how things would have fared, if he managed to complete the unthinkable and recover from such a comprehensive deficit to win. Early in the fourth set, he swung wildly and registered another error into the net.
That was a promising break point opportunity to go 2-0 up, no less. A poorly-timed net approach saw him exploited with a down-the-line shot and suddenly Nadal was presented with a chance to stifle his momentum. That didn’t last long. Rafa was frustrated and seemed increasingly weary as a player ten years his junior continued persistently in pursuit of a remarkable comeback.
Back-and-forth they went, 1-1 soon became 4-4 and something had to give. Medvedev’s timely aces were doing the trick, much to the Spaniard’s annoyance – regularly claiming he wasn’t ready in time to receive serve. He got a few time violations for laboured serving of his own which impacted his efficiency, while the umpire’s justified officiating decisions added another tense subplot to a gripping finale.
Up 5-4 with Nadal to serve, Medvedev was facing an immediate break-back after Rafa fired home his fifth ace of the match to make it 40-15. A forehand error into the net and down-the-line winner brought deuce, before the Spaniard saw a wayward shot fly well wide.
Advantage Medvedev. A beautiful return ace followed, and it was suddenly all even again. Three hours and 48 minutes after the match began. Around 90 minutes prior, I was preparing to finish my match report on how Nadal proved too much with a straight-sets victory over the Russian, despite his best efforts.
Two sets apiece, game on again
Those Nadal-favouring analysts, well they changed their tune too. Of course they did. Pre-match, they claimed Medvedev would be fortunate to win more than 11 or 12 games over the course of this entire match. He had just stunned them into complete silence, clawing two sets back against one of the world’s greatest ever players.
“He started this tournament looking tired, exhausted, behaving like a planet without an atmosphere… he’s now playing tennis from another universe. It’s astonishing he can hit the ball that well from down low, beat Nadal simply through sheer pace.” – Mark Petchey after Medvedev continued an unlikely comeback
Martina Navratilova said: ”He’s surprised us all. We’ve never seen him [Daniil] play this well before!” Well, you certainly have now.
Rafa employed some underhand tactics of his own to disrupt Medvedev’s momentum, entering a deciding set and the Russian again faltered when it mattered most. Nadal earned a crucial break point to take a 3-2 lead, despite Daniil previously being up 40-0 on serve in that very same game. The fact he hasn’t won a five-setter to date, coupled with Nadal’s ridiculous record when leading by two sets, meant something was bound to happen.
That 3-2 advantage swiftly turned to 5-2, as the Spaniard began turning the screw. He could smell blood and capitalised, with a mixture of his delicate touch and deadly precision against a streaky ball-striker who couldn’t maintain those dizzying heights in crunch time.
Despite saving two championship points and with Rafa’s stuttering serve presenting further hope, Nadal finally held firm before forcing a forehand wide and dropping to the floor with relief after securing his 19th Grand Slam in dramatic circumstances.
Post-match comments, what’s next?
Medvedev was in jovial mood, reflecting on an eventful fortnight where he went from villain to hero with the US Open crowd.
He congratulated Rafa, hailing the achievement of 19 Grand Slams which is both ‘unbelievable and outrageous’, before admitting he was unsure what video package was prepared incase he won here, considering his limited success and experience at the highest level to date.
“When I saw the video on the screen of him winning [multiple Slams], I was wondering if I won, what would they show? I already had my speech ready, I thought in 20 minutes I would have to say, losing in my first GS final in three sets… so I need to fight for every ball. It went further but was not enough.
He embraced his role as tournament villain after being booed earlier in the week, stressing the crowd’s negative energy towards him had propelled him to win. This time though, that same fighting spirit he showed was spurred on by the crowd’s appreciation for his abilities and equally quality to battle the way he did against Nadal.
“I know earlier in the tournament I said something in a bad way, but this time it’s a positive… because of your energy, I got to this Final. Tonight will always be in my mind, I played in the world’s biggest court and because of you guys [the fans], I was fighting like hell. Like I said, it’s electric [here]. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
After his impressive run to runner-up this tournament, Medvedev will climb to a career-best ranking of world number four in the ATP’s latest rankings overnight.
Nadal was understandably emotional after watching his video package and seemingly lost for words at times, but still reserved praise for a worthy dance partner across the net.
“This was an amazing final… it seemed like I had the match more-or-less under my control but I have to say something for Daniil. His summer is one of the best I’ve ever seen in this sport since I’ve been playing so tonight, everybody saw why he’s the no.4 in the world at just 23-years-old.
Many congratulations for everything, the way he was able to fight and change the rhythm of the match was just incredible so well done to you, your great team… I’m sure you’ll have many more chances to win here so all the best.”
He thanked his raucous supporters, his loyal team watching on from the players box, remembered a tragic death of a close friend’s son and more, continuing:
“This victory means a lot, especially as it became so tough and I managed to hold firm. The nerves, this was a crazy match and yeah I don’t know, I’m emotional, sorry! Thanks to all those who make this event possible and so special.
I wouldn’t be here without my team, I saw all of you suffering so much, I just want to say thank you for everything – through the good and bad moments, all of you around me. Without you, none of this would be possible. I hope to see you all next year!”
Nadal extends the gap between himself and world no.3 Roger Federer while closing in on no.1 Novak Djokovic. 640 ranking points separate the pair, though he’s not expected to usurp the Serbian before the year 2020 – he’s getting married next month and the final opportunity to do so will be at the Nitto ATP Finals in London in mid-November.